A Haredi advisor to the mayor of Israel’s largest city, a secular actor, and a Religious Zionist journalist board a plane to Los Angeles…
Although this sounds like the beginning of a joke, this was the scene as I recently led a Gesher trip: a broad delegation of Israeli movers and shakers on their way to study the thriving kaleidoscope of rich Jewish life outside of Israel. This is what Gesher is about – bringing together diverse sectors of the Jewish people to explore, build and strengthen a cohesive society.
Gesher is an organization that has been recognized for decades as the leader in facilitating dialogue and shattering stereotypes between the often-conflicting sectors of Israeli Jewish society. Many leaders today in Israel cite their earlier participation in a Gesher seminar (often in high school) as one of the most nationalistically transformative, identity-forming moments of their lives.
Just a few years ago, we decided to expand our efforts in two crucial areas. First, we chose to evolve from a strictly educational organization to one focused on tangible social impact. The most dramatic operational change was initiating our work with Israeli society leaders soldiers representing the next generation. The second was our decision to expand our focus, from bridging the gaps only in Israeli society to also focusing on rifts between Israelis and world Jewry by increasing Israelis’ sense of connection to the global community.
Taking on these goals meant we needed to develop projects geared towards leaders in Israeli society becoming better educated and more aware of world Jewry, and to imbue within these leaders a sense of responsibility to those Jews around the world. The most prominent manifestation of this goal is a three-month intensive course for a cohort of about 20 senior civic leaders in Israel. With almost half of the Jewish people now residing in Israel, we are living through a paradigm shift: Israel and Israelis need to assume more responsibility for global Jewry and inject some tangible substance into the well-oiled idiom of the “state of the Jewish people.”
The question we put to this group: What does that responsibility means today for Israel?
With many Jewish leaders (and laypeople) sensing a widening gap between Israel and world Jewry, it is crucial now more than ever to close that gap. For decades, Gesher has believed that the way to shatter stereotypes and break down barriers is through meeting face-to-face. But two years of Covid and travel restrictions have further distanced Israel and Israelis from the hearts and minds of Jews around the world. For many Israelis, Jews living abroad are, at best, expected to donate money and, at worst, not able to live a “true” Jewish life.
Yes, for many Israelis, ignorance of Jewish life abroad is par for the course. And as in any community, many of these attitudes come from leaders and those who often “have the microphone” in the media. As such, we decided to focus on creating this transformative experience for leaders in Israeli society: we educate, expose, and encourage them to try and further promote these goals through them to their spheres of influence.
Just this past November, for example, the head of Education in the IDF participated in one of our courses. It included an intense week of meeting the Jewish communities in Washington DC and New York, and he emerged transformed. How did we know? Upon his return, he immediately sought ways to implement his newfound sense of Jewish peoplehood through his organisation. Already, we have seen tangible results: Whether it was the show of solidarity with the Jewish community in Colleyville, Texas, and their harrowing hostage situation, or helping to settle the Jewish refugees from Ukraine, the newfound sense of Jewish peoplehood in the IDF’s education corps in palpable.